The Evolution of Chinese Religion

The Evolution of Chinese Religion
Thus We have made pleasing to every community their deeds. Then to their Lord is their return, and He will inform them about what they used to do.Al-An'aam 6:108
From Monotheism to Polytheism

There are few well known religions in China such as Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. The belief in Oneness of God was there before the existence of religion in Chinese society. Chinese community believe the existence of one God which is Shang Di before the arise of Confucianism and Taoism philosophy. The Chinese historian, Sima Qian wrote in his book entitled Shi Ji state:

“Shang Di is another name for Tian. The spirits do not have two Lords”  (1)


Shang Di (上帝) or Tian (天) is the name of a God in Chinese community believed since a long time ago. It does not have any image, picture or statue in a form of idols. Furthermore, it is an entity that is not the same as human beings.

Chinese community understand it through characters of letters such as hanzi 上帝 and 天. Tian (天) symbolised the concept monotheism, due to the Chinese word character of hanzi for Tian (天) is a combination of two Hanzi characters which are Da (大) dan Yi ( 一). Da means the All-Mighty while Yi means Oneness. Two letters is formed for Tian which means the Sky and Heaven. It indicates the God is at the sky.

That is the reason why the ancient Chinese community worship one God and around the year 2000 BC – 800 BC, the doctrine of Shamanism and fortune teller was developed in China. Then the believes was influenced by the Taoism religion which came later on such as the usage of talisman and mantra to fight against the supernatural and binding spells in order to cure the one affected. But the earliest Taoism belief do not teach these particularly rituals.  (2)


Existence of Confucianism and Taoism Philosophy

There were a lot of war and coup between small states during the classic era around 700 BC – 220 BC hence created the need towards political and strategy advice. However, they also focused on social development and the era which new leaders appeared such as Lao Zhi ( 604 BC – 531 BC) and Kongfu Zi (551 BC – 479 BC). (3)

Both of them brought their own philosophy for the purpose of social development. Both philosophy brought the believe that was well influenced even the concept of God was influenced by the concept of god in ancient Chinese community.

God term used between Lao zi and Kongfu Zi have a few differences mainly inside the form of characters letter of Hanzi and the definition of the letter. According to Lao Zi in his book entitled Dao De Ching used the term Dao (道) which indicates God. (4) Besides, according to Kongfu zi, he used the term Tian (天) inside the book to indicate God too. Both of them used the term which was used by the ancient Chinese community to described God. Even both terms for God was not made into image or idols. They believed that God is one and only.

Outside influence towards the concept of God

Buddhism came from India then entered into China and expanded around the year in 240 BC which is the era under the ruling of King Asoka in India. Buddhism remain in China in first 10 AD. (5)

There are various types of Buddhism over there such as Theravada, Yogacara, Vajrayana and Mahayana.

The teachings of Lao zi and Kongzi also developed and expanded in China. Even though there was innovation in the teachings. The teaching that was brought by Lao zi or known as Taoism gave a huge impact to the shamanism doctrine which was by the ancient Chinese community while the teaching of Kongfu zi did not impacted the Shamanism influence.

Syncretism or mixing of and believed occurred in the teaching of Taoism. The evolution of Taoism from philosophy to religion in the year between 20 BC – 600 AD.

A well known Taoist figure called Zhang Daoling. He became first person who embed and strengthened the system into Taoism whereas the founder, Lao Tze did not introduced the religion system according to Zhang Daoling. Taoism made history when it became a religion through the formation of religious leader, set of rituals, scriptures and a lot of followers.

Taoism firstly became well known in the era of dynasty Han (25 AD-219 AD) when shamanism influenced was less practiced in the castle. In year 150 AD, the kings built a temple of kings specifically to performed the official ceremony as an honour towards the purification of Lao zi. Aligning with the belief on purification thus followed by the need to increase the rank of Laozi to the highest level of God.

During the era of dynasty Tang (618 AD – 907 AD), the royal family indicted the ancestry of Laozi for having the same family name, Li 李. Therefore, Taoism have achieved an official status under his ruling. Moreover, Gaozong King make Dai De Jing scriptures as one of the compulsory subject for the people who set for the public services examination.

If it is measure in terms of historical Taoism practices, the figure that is worthy to be given credit as the founder of Taoism is Zhang Daoling. (7) Zhang Ling is his real name and He was born in South of China in a place which strong shamanism was at that time. (8)

According to the legend, he succeed in finishing the whole classic text of Dao de Jing. (9). During his adulthood, he went on exploring the Sichuan territory to undergo the ascetic life and to seek knowledge on religion. In the year 142 AD, he professed of an event that occurred which changes his life. A god appeared from the sky then came face to face with him in an awake state (yaqazhah), then gifted him with the power to do miracles and elevate his title to Tianshi (Heaven Master). The god is said to be the resemblance of Laozi and is known as the elder of the highest greatness (太上老君).

Jumping-off point from the event, Zhang Daoling have established the movement of Tianshi Dao (School of Heaven Master) in Sichuan territory. It also known as Wudoumi Dao 五斗米道 (Way of The Five Pecks of Rice) because the criteria of acceptance of a member is by giving tax five dou (1 dou =10kg) rice or items which have the same quantity.

Besides, Tianshi Dao has an well organized organization structure such as hierarchy of religious leader, record system of supernatural, talisman, moral principal, studying the classic text of Dao de Jing and etc. Furthermore, in the earliest era, it consist of twenty four states ruled under the Sichuan territory.

Under the leadership of his grandchild, Zhang Lu the movement later became militancy thus launching a rebel in the year 189 AD but they surrendered peacefully to Cao Cao (曹操). Cao Cao (曹操) was a warlord in the year (155AD – 220AD). Therefore, the movement indirectly exist until now.

Taoism brought by Zhang Daoling was easily accepted due to the fact that the people at that time are strong followers of shamanism and animism. The movement lead by Zhang Daoling have influence the Taoism we know today. As an example, the religious rituals whereby Zhang Daoling popularized the usage of talisman which is still practice until today. Usually the necklace is in the form of a yellow paper and written using Chinese characters, the meaning are kept as secret. (10)

Even the belief of worshipping gods and goddess was embedded into Taoism to a point where they included many idols, gods and goddess in their worship. Whereas the reality of earliest leader did not introduce the such practices and beliefs.

Mixing of Beliefs Occurred

Lastly, the Chinese community incorporated all four beliefs into their practices. There are times where they practice Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism and also Chinese traditional beliefs. Besides that, they also practice Feng Shui and etc.

This mixing of beliefs is called as syncretism among the religions. According to them, all the four religion is compensate with each other. If they want the understanding of philosophy and moral, they will refer to Confucianism and if they want spiritual and balance between two worlds, they will refer to Taoism. These are the way they practiced the religions until now.



It is recorded in history that the ancient Chinese community worship one God that does not have an image nor given birth to but later on the practiced of worshipping Gods and Goddesses were added on into Taoism. Even though, the founder himself did not introduce this way of worship. It was created by the people later on.

Lastly, Chinese community consider that all religion that exist till the classic era is important and is practiced synchronously.


Key Note

1. Refer to Sima Qian (-). Shi Ji, volume 28, book 6, pg 624
2. Refer to Eva Wong, (2011). Taoism An Essential Guide, Shambhala Publications, London, pg 11-19
3. Ibid, pg 20-30/ refer to Cao Dawei & Sun Yanjing, (2010). China’s History, China Intercontinental Press, Beijing, pg 44-45
4. Refer to the scriptures of Dao Te Ching chapter 4: Xiang Di Zhi Xian, chapter 25: Dao De Zhen Mian Mu, chapter 39: Dao De Gen Ben. And refer to scriptures of Kongfu zi dalam The Anaclets 3: 13, 9: 5, 16: 8, 14: 35
5. Refer to Milon Nandy, (1996). The Profund Teachings of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism & Shintoism, Eurasia-Pasific Books, Ampang, pg 34
6. Refer to Eva Wong, (2011). Taoism An Essential Guide, Shambhala Publications, London, pg 34
7. Refer to Herman, J. (2013). Taoism For Dummies. Mississauga, Canada: John Wiley & Sons Canada pg 75/ refer to Palmer, M. (2000). T’ung Shu. Kuala Lumpur: Vinpress, pg 82.
8. Refer to Eva Wong, (2011). Taoism An Essential Guide, Shambhala Publications, London, pg 34
9. Refer to Palmer, M. (2000). T’ung Shu. Kuala Lumpur: Vinpress, pg 82
10. Refer to Milon Nandy, (1996). The Profund Teachings of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism & Shintoism, Eurasia-Pasific Books, Ampang, pg 59

MRM R&D Team

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